Fred Frith et alia at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, Vancouver
Fred Frith seems like a wonderful human being. He came into town at the invite of Giorgio Magnanensi (pic here, with a bio in French) from Vancouver New Music, gave a solo guitar concert on Wednesday (with all the inventiveness that that usually implies – manipulating his guitar with bows, bowls, rolls of string, chopsticks, drumsticks, and bits of God-knows-what, then looping bits of it and playing back over it); he then performed with Montreal improvisers Jean Derome and Pierre Tanguay later that night (a delightful show that started out in the mode of standard free jazz but got really exciting as the players got more interesting, with Derome putting down his sax and proving to be a delight with little instruments – party toys, odd percussive and vocal effects items, not sure what-all-else, and Tanguay drumming on a ladder, drumming on something in the back of the hall, drumming on a hardhat he put on, etc). After that, he took up the task of organizing a concert from seven of Vancouver’s most respected avant-garde musicians – cellist Peggy Lee, clarinetist Francois Houle, guitarist Ron Samworth, viola player and laptop guy Stefan Smulovitz, Paul Blaney (replacing Torsten Muller, who has low web visibility so no link) on bass, Jesse Zubot, and Dylan van der Schyff. The ensemble did two two-hour rehearsals for the event, the first of which was mostly about assessing the player’s strengths and styles, and the second of which Frith brought scores to, which he’d assembled the previous evening, largely from his film soundtracks, but including passages of improvisation and game pieces with directions like “everyone plays as loud and fast as possible, but never at the same time as anyone else” – any artist being free to take over at any time. (Other directions focused on given combinations of players doing improvised duets). Since these rehearsals – somewhat misleadingly dubbed “jam sessions” in the program – were open to the public, we got to watch Frith give direction, and got to observe how receptive our locals were to it – some, like Francois Houle and Peggy Lee, kept their ego out of the way entirely, took direction easily and graciously, and played their best, devoting themselves to producing the music in line with Frith’s vision of things (he thanked them at one point for “submitting to my unusual tastes”); others appeared to have a fair bit more difficulty with doing what they were asked. The most shocking moment coming when Fred Frith turned to Dylan van der Schyff during their “artist’s chat” and asked him quite directly, “as an improviser, do you have difficulty taking direction?” – making the relationship of performer-to-conductor/composer the topic of the next half hour of discussion, with Frith talking about how he has to subordinate himself to Zorn when he plays for him, about the difficulties of coming into town for such a short period and having to balance “being nice” with the need to get a decent performance out of people, and the difficulties some players have surrendering to the vision of the leader. Much of this, unfortunately, seemed only to provoke a certain defensiveness in van der Schyff (tho' I guess it's understandable that he might have been embarrassed by the thrust of Frith's question). He seems to be a sensitive and somewhat difficult man... There were surprises during the night – I had stopped paying much attention to Jesse Zubot after what I thought was a kind of half-assed Zubot and Dawson gig at the now-defunct Sugar Refinery some years ago, but I really liked what he did on violin; Stefan Smulovitz, tho’ apparently a bit neurotic during the rehearsals, did some pretty cool stuff with the computer software he’s designed, Kenaxis, which my friend Dan Kibke praises -- you can read a bit more about it here; and Paul Blaney made pleasing humming and buzzing sounds with his mouth as he played. A friend in attendance noted that Ron Samworth seemed like a “worrier,” but he played well and paid strict attention to Frith’s guidance – perhaps, like me, he was in awe of being in proximity to Fred Frith, who surely must be somewhat of an influence on him; there was a humility to his manner that isn’t normally as apparent when he plays around town (he usually seems one of the more confident of our local musicians). Overall, the music was wonderful, and I was impressed at how well it went off, particularly given the rehearsals (where Frith was heard to offer advice like “if a trainwreck happens, we’ll just have to move on to the next station” – a few trainwrecks having occurred by that point; Frith said during one chat that if he’d had his way, the whole experience would have been “more intense” and they’d have been able to rehearse together for a week, to get past the superficial niceness into really dealing with each other, pushing each other, working with each other). Most of the scored passages appeared to come from Frith's wonderful soundtrack to Rivers and Tides, the documentary about UK artist Andy Goldsworthy (more background here). At the end of the evening, the audience was thrilled, and the musicians and guest conductor appeared to be well-pleased.
Alas, other shows were not as well attended during the festival. A fair crowd came out to see Janek Schaefer, though as I was manning the merch tables that night, I only got to sample his aggressive blare as it emanated through the wall. Too many people missed Joane Hetu and Magali Babin’s wonderful performance, though (and only about seven people came to the artist’s chat, which was really quite instructive in giving us a picture of the very fertile Montreal scene – many of the artists of which sell their CDs through ActuelleCD, here). Hetu and Babin, who, we were all shocked to discover, had never worked together before, did something that sounded like the sacred music of an obscure tribe of pygmies with a penchant for variety, recorded in the heart of the rainforest on a misty morning on a day when there had been a few points of crisis that they wished to express as part of their song. (Fred Frith, who teaches composition and improvisation at Mills, jokingly gave people the homework assignment during a chat of “describing what Joane Hetu was doing in seven words or less… of your own invention!” I haven't quite written what he asked for, but I too am a difficult and sensitive man…). Hetu played saxophone and did vocal improv both; it was interesting to learn that she considers herself more of a sax player than a vocalist and rarely practices vocal stuff, because it was there that she shone – she deserves a place among the performers she admires -- she mentioned Jaap Blonk and Phil Minton, in particular, tho’ I’d include on the list the previously-interviewed Maggie Nichols. Given my fondness for this style of music, Hetu was the discovery of the festival for me (tho’ I also greatly liked the music of her partner, Jean Derome).
What else can I say? I really enjoyed Klaxon Gueule’s performance, though I think I’ll skip trying to describe it (a rapturous series of deliberately-provoked traffic accidents while on psychedelics?) and the quartet of Bernard Falaise (from that unit, tho' they somewhat mysteriously gave themselves incorrect names, which they printed on identifying cards placed on the floor), Pierre Tanguay, Dylan van der Schyff, and Ron Samworth (whom I spied upon for a few minutes while another volunteer spelled me on the merch table) sounded pretty cool, too – with van der Schyff seeming much more in his element, adeptly playing off Pierre Tanguay, who was probably the friendliest of the musicians in attendance (and most assertive giver of handshakes – I got two). Montreal looks like it might be the place to go – I have dreams of someday making it to Victoriaville for the festival, but who knows if they’ll ever come true.
The best way to sum up the music of the weekend was a comment that Giorgio made during the artist’s chat with Fred (which he briefly ran away with, before Fred – who is not shy! – gently and humorously shut him down): in English, we “play” as children, and we “play” musical instruments, and the coincidence of these two verbs (which does not occur in French) contains a lovely poetic truth. As Frith had said previously, the artist is someone who doesn’t lose the capacity to play, to explore, to look at the universe with wonder – which most of us get hammered out of us by a certain age. It was wonderful seeing people “play” together, then, at the Interference festival. It brings back some of that wonder to everyone.
Apologies to Kaffe Matthews and morceaux_de_machines -- I wanted to visit my parents, so I skipped your gig and gave my ticket to Dan. Family is important, too!
About the photo: the hip, creative, and musically talented teenaged son of Sunshine Coast artist Thomas Ziorjen (a buddy of mine from way back) was unable to attend the festival, so I got Fred to sign a program for him; it reads “Tristan, where are you? – Fred Frith” (and will be presently in the mail). The beetle came from Japan. (Matthew, I don't really know what you're listening to lately, but I owe you one).
OVERSIGHT POSTSCRIPT: thanks especially to Linda Uyehara Hoffman (web visibility zero, not even as a taiko drummer), for her role in directing volunteers, keeping us perked, and for reading this blog! She helpfully informs me that I should also thank "Giorgio, Jim, Heather (the Creaking Plank), Bernard, and Drey-san." Thanks!